The previous entries in this series, on the Nords and the Altmer, were a necessary foundation for explaining the traditional dueling practices of my own people, the Dunmer. The Dunmeri ancestors once dueled as the Altmer do now. For us, however dueling developed into a highly popular, efficient, contemptible way to slaughter the weak and the poor for contrived and meager offenses. I will try to explain how this Sheogorath-kissed barbarity came about in a way that all may understand. As for my kinsmer: eat my words, your ancestors’ recipe, for your faces are already bitter.
I have no doubt some, from the Thalmor to less flamboyant bigots, seek my death for my previous publications. Their numbers are sure to grow now. But if fate should grant me only one more story, it must be this one. I will try to tell it as briefly as possible, but please forgive the length, for Dunmeri dueling is really three stories: who we were, who we became, and who we are becoming.
Trinimac and Boethiah
I need not recount the most storied duel in Tamriel’s history. Where some see a historical event in the legends, the wiser perceive an intricate metaphor. The wisest see both. Regardless of interpretation, this much was clear: the Chimer followed Veloth, Veloth followed Boethiah, and Boethiah followed the blood. Boethiah led us to blood, demanded blood for her patronage, and over time, we would drown in a boiling cascade of blood. This is no exaggeration; this is the same Boethiah of Boethiah’s Proving, where her follower proves his existence by ending another’s.
However, it should not be assumed the early Chimer knew of this duel or what transpired. Legends hold the Velothi had departed even before Boethiah’s challenge to Trinimac. Therefore, Boethiah and Mephala cheating in a duel had little if any impact on their exodus. Learning of it may have actually troubled many Chimer. The real driving force behind their decision to leave was the revelation they were offered.
Summarizing all the lessons of Boethiah make them seem like the lessons of Sheogorath on parchment. But the relevant truths she revealed were these: the great prize of immortality is real, the strongest can challenge for it, and the survivors can claim it. So you see, the early Chimer were not pilgrims. They are better thought of as treasure hunters, a pirate armada seeking a glorious godhead booty. Imagine how misled and ignorant the Aldmer appeared, idling away their years, poking each other to first blood. It seems only fitting that the Chimer’s quest would take them as far away from Summerset as they could have gone on Tamriel.
Following Daedric designs, the Chimer would find a place where mere survival was a beautiful achievement, and build a way of life meant to produce and exalt the strongest. Dueling would be a vital component of this society, although it was only one of several methods for dealing with a bothersome mer. While Boethiah led the way, Mephala was the taskmaster in the arts of lies, sex, and murder.
Among the Velothi
The Chimer’s sense of superiority was a matter of knowledge, not belief, making their disrespect for outsiders more pronounced. Other races could prove useful or beautiful, but these graces would only make them fit to be slaves, for they did not – and presumably could not – share in Chimeri enlightenment. All of which is to say, the Chimer had no need yet of developing etiquette for dueling outsiders. A slave has no right to challenge, and those were the only outsiders they would tolerate for quite some time.
Ashlander culture probably preserves Chimeri dueling practices in much the form they took in their earliest days. And the first rule in dealing with Ashlanders is to keep your weapon out of your hands. It’s as if by publicly handling a weapon in camp, it should be assumed you’re challenging all comers. This might be thought of as the earliest rule of dueling in the Chimer camps, although there were some basic holdovers from Aldmeri culture. Dueling was restricted to adult mer, and they rarely if ever had mounted combat in their duels. But most rules of dueling laid disgraced along with Trinimac. There was little scheduling, for example. Generally, a mer proposed a duel, it was accepted, and the fight was on. Obviously, duels to the death would be commonplace.
Ashlanders still make duel challenges, for sport or honor, though practices within tribes vary a little even to this day. Most duels for sport are non-lethal fistfights for training purposes, but they can take many forms, including high-staked duels to the death with free choice of arms. To the Chimer, a “fair” duel did not mean using the same weaponry. A “fair” duel was one where the more powerful would win.
Duels for honor are fought over scandalous insults, ritual, status, inheritance, or even mere privacy. Entering an Ashlander yurt without invitation is typically greeted by a challenge, but one can hope a withdrawal from the yurt will lead to the withdrawal of the challenge. Unlike duels for sport, an honor challenge cannot be refused without grave dishonor, which is worth dwelling on. There was immense pressure to accept these challenges. Every Chimer was expected to readily kill or be killed over matters of honor. This might be viewed as a kind of religious compulsion, but it was also a practical matter. An honorable reputation was the first and best defense one could have against future duel challenges, assassination, or exile. Needless to say, the Ashlanders are very polite to their fellow tribesmer. Survival demands it.
Understanding the distinctions of the Chimeri code of honor – and indeed, understanding how a society dedicated to blood, lies, sex, and murder can even function – depends first on understanding Azura and her justice. She acted as a balm on Chimeri conflicts with each other, and encouraged respectful dealings. Like Boethiah, Azura placed value on shows of loyalty, not just to her, but among each other. While Boethiah sought blood, the price of Azura’s benevolence seemed to be only praise and attention.
And there could be any Daedric Princess more worthy of praise and attention in the Aurbis than Azura? Azura is the spark in my eye when it falls upon anything beautiful. Discerning the truth of her mysteries raises me from bed each day. If only I had the genius and time it would take to write a series worthy to have her as the subject!
The other key to understanding Chimeri honor was the practice of communing with ancestors. Besides being a great consolation for those faced with death, the existence of ancestral summoning was also a remarkable curb on dishonorable behavior. Everything you witness others do or say, and everything you do or say to others, might be recounted forever. It was only necessary to be interesting and credible enough for your future kin to consult, and your kin would have to be interesting and honorable enough to merit conversation.
A tribesmer derives great honor from their tribe, and may offer an honor challenge due to some perceived insult or threat to it. It was presumed that every mer was capable of defending themselves – or at least, could rely on a bond of honor with a champion. Still, the prospect of assassination and political calculations served to curb lopsided and petty dueling challenges within tribes. Even the strongest warrior must sleep, and all wish to awake again.
Among High Culture
The first Chimer Houses, naturally, fell into old habits setting written rules for their dueling practices based on the tribal practices. Houses developed different internal dueling customs, but the commonalities became greater over time. Your honor was your House’s honor. You might have the need to request a champion from your House, but your House might refuse to champion the weak, dishonorable, or inconvenient, and send them off to their death instead.
The desire to avoid Mephalan interference led to the creation of comprehensive dueling contracts stipulating all the rules and stakes of important duels, a practice which dates back to at least the founding of Resdayn. For many Dunmer duelists, these contracts have long represented the superior nature of their traditions, but for others, they can be comically absurd. The language of the contracts has developed in response to thousands of years of duelists finding and exploiting loopholes. The standard Third Era dueling contract was longer than this whole treatise, and began by defining “Aetherius.” One can only speculate on what happened to make that necessary.
Some Chimer were becoming more scholarly and martially untrained, but still, an honor challenge could not be declined – at least, not without suffering dishonor sufficient to destroy a minor House. Legally, it became known as the “Presumption of Arms”: honor duelists may use whatever weaponry they wish, magical or otherwise, but if one has no skills in weaponry, then their hands must suffice. They were Chimeri hands, after all. Still, the emergence of “domesticated” Chimer led submission to be acceptable more and more, though the dishonor is great if it is thought one gave up prematurely.
Dueling would slowly become the pastime of Chimeri nobles, with greater rank bringing a greater obligation to duel. However, a “noble” would come to describe a vast swath of free Chimer, as some minor rank of nobility was relatively easy to gain and hard to lose. Further, the privileges of these early noble classes made them especially … prolific.
A local magistrate retained the power to void the result of a duel and declare the victor a murderer if they believed that the vanquished had been cheated or unduly coerced. The right to challenge became limited by hierarchies and class, though even the most segregated and litigious Houses or Guilds did not limit duels nearly as much as the Altmeri. Among the Redoran, whose code of honor would be the most recognizable in the lands of men, dueling became all-important and practically unavoidable in any mer’s rise to power. The Hlaalu, meanwhile, were likely the first to develop the idea of purchasing proof of one’s honor, exempting themselves from most challenges within their House (for limited periods of time, of course). These charges would form the basis of their burgeoning tax schemes. Typically, when the Hlaalu did duel, the form was a duel of submission with fists.
Duels of submission are more brutal than duels to first blood. The goal is to drive your opponent to the brink of death, and you risk dishonoring yourself and your House by ending your opponent’s life. This proved acceptable under the rationale that striking the balance between life and death can exhibit greater mastery than slaughtering with unrestrained force. Such duels proved popular as tests of merit for those seeking entry into the service of a lord, as the lord did not have to lose one proven warrior in order to gain another. However, most duels of submission among the Dunmer would be better comprehended by outlanders as a polite way to send a hired thug to assault a noble debtor for being late on their payments. The debtors pre-emptively agreed to such “challenges” in their contracts.
Once a foothold was established, Velothi High Culture spread relatively easily, which is a testament to two relevant things. First, Boethiah and Mephala were building a thoroughly martial and practical people. They were vicious killers, almost to a person. Second, with Mephala’s encouragement, Aldmeri courting customs were abandoned, and the Chimer had developed a birth rate which made the Bosmer look like chaste prudes. They were still never numerous, though, due to the harshness of their land and customs.
The age of Velothi High Culture made for a time of aggressive expansion, but it collapsed even before the First Era began. The Chimer seemed to have fought themselves down a rung or two on the ladder of civilization. It can be assumed that, as they developed, their dueling customs were among those which proved incompatible with a larger society. The Chimeri philosophy could only function well at a tribal or colonial level, as bonds of friendship, family, and honor kept violence at bay. As they grew and the powerful became alienated from each other, it begged for major conflicts which left them weak to outside forces. We could not thrive as a land of strangers, no matter the gifts we offered. So, in the third century of the First Era, when the Nordic pogroms against the Snow Elves could no longer find targets, they turned their attention to the Chimer, and proved themselves stronger.
The Chimer were still formidable, but for reasons which will become clear, it should be understood that only Saint Nerevar’s alliance with the Dwemer saved the Chimer from Nordic subjugation. No one could seriously claim that the Dwemer needed help to drive the Nords from Chimeri lands. All that had allowed the Atmoran invaders any of their conquests was Dwemeri disinterest, and the Nords clearly practiced a conspiracy of embarrassed silence regarding the indomitable elven strongholds beneath their feet. The Dwemer were so unstoppable in war that they earned even the Chimer’s respect.
Though wildly different in many ways, the two races of mer eerily mirrored each other in their aims, ruthlessness, and practicality, and so the Chimer would make a place for the Dwemer under their First Council. This would be the first significant break in the Chimer’s cultural isolation. However, I can find no evidence of dueling between them. Even though they were allied, it was a contentious agreement on both sides, and it is safe to say the two races did not mingle socially.
Under the Tribunal
The Chimer did not seek a safe harbor, they sought storm and treasure. But following the second Battle of Red Mountain circa 1E 700, they found their greatest prize, and were crushed by it. The newly-oiled Dunmer received three guardians who kept us protected and insulated. Spoiled with cosmic certainty, we only had to consider our individual and factional power. Azura did not totally abandon us, but her favors were understandably dimmed as she waited on the punishment to come for the trespasses of our Tribunal. She was the first pillar of honorable Chimeri dueling the Dunmer would lose.
With an end to serious war or any sort of existential risk, the Dunmer soon had a burgeoning population with little to do. The Dunmer got in border disputes with our neighbors occasionally. Many Dunmer went abroad, trading in goods or lives, but it proved largely unpopular to leave behind both the power of the living and the wisdom of the dead for unholy, hostile lands. Dunmer duelists in foreign lands likely did little to ingratiate our race in Tamriel. Without a dueling contract in place, an honorable Dunmer might have considered any sort of tactic permissible. Greater hierarchies within the Houses helped to rein in our birth rate, and there was the occasional cataclysm to thin our ranks. But when all else failed, we simply killed each other more.
When the Houses were not making war upon each other, or persecuting the “heretical” Ashlanders or other dissidents, they were encouraging the spilling of blood in honor duels. The schedules of arenas throughout Morrowind were routinely filled with duels for the honor of the Great Houses. And if there were still too many mouths to feed and not enough offense being taken, the Houses would carefully contrive honor challenges, employing conspiracies of all kinds to drive the powerless and troublesome to all but certain death at the hands of the greatest of Dunmeri killers. Such scheming was always for the greater good, we were assured.
The Morag Tong could target virtually any Dunmer with little discernible pattern (as would please Mephala), but their writs focused on alleged murderers. The threat they posed served to check the contrivance of overtly despicable duels which could be construed as murder. Duelists had to be confident that the community would perceive the merit in a challenge – before 2E 324, that is. The assassination of Potentate Versidue-Shaie was attributed to the Morag Tong, correctly or not, and they were persecuted into a shadow of their former self. With the Morag Tong decimated even in Morrowind, successful assassinations became far less likely among the Dunmer. The Tong became almost entirely dependent on completing writs for Great House and Temple leaders, and the targets of their assassination writs would soon take on predictable characteristics. And so, another considerable check on dishonorable conduct by powerful Dunmer was dimmed.
The problem was to become even worse with the erection of the Great Ghost Fence around Red Mountain. As explained in a later edition of Ancestors and the Dunmer, published around the beginning of the Third Era, our ancestral practices had been deemed “selfish” by the Tribunal. After long marginalizing ancestor worship, the theocracy finally demanded the Dunmer trade our communion with the past for a doomed stalling action against Dagoth Ur, as the power of our ancestors was needed for the Ghostfence. It is impossible to underestimate the ramifications of the loss on Dunmeri society.
With our ancestors out of our reach, and even our living gods receding from public concerns, Dunmeri society was collapsing in much the same way the Chimer collapsed before Nerevar’s heroism. Without the wisdom and insights of the past, we lost yet another check on dishonorable behavior by the powerful. For masters of conspiracy, the truth could become forever obscured, and history would be whatever they wished it to be. Now, everything was on the table, and the most powerful typically were those willing to act the most dishonorably. Honor had become little more than a weakness to be exploited.
We appeared to become more “civilized” to the outside world over the course of the Third Era, such as by (mostly) abandoning necromancy. The Dunmer had begun dueling outlanders since at least the days of the Ebonheart Pact in the late Second Era (although isolated incidents of inter-racial dueling might be found eras earlier). Many a Dunmer had proudly adopted some outlander customs, such as by decorating their homes with “dueling banners” to signal their willingness to duel. Guar-mounted jousting in the Imperial fashion also became a highly entertaining novelty (but remained rare, for the guar themselves were not fans). It was often said that duels to the death were outnumbered by duels of submission in Morrowind. However, the reality of it all was very different. We were tearing each other apart.
Keep in mind, most “duels of submission” were mere beatings by debt collectors. As for duels in the arenas or other proper dueling settings, they were largely supposed to end when one party submitted or fell in battle. The combat was often not supposed to be mortal, on parchment, but many of those who “fell in battle” would never rise again. Repercussions for those who happened to kill their opponent had become minimal or non-existent. House Redoran was the significant exception, holding great dishonor for those duelers who killed when the goal was to wound (probably due to the great pride they took in their military skill). Redoran was also one of the few Houses which, for the most part, found it dishonorable to loot a defeated opponent’s possessions after a duel. The profit-driven Hlaalu, obviously, found this reticence foolish.
In this state of affairs – without Azura’s grace, effective assassination options for the masses, or ancestral guidance – the arenas of dueling in Morrowind became dens of unmitigated slaughter. A trained House killer in full enchanted armor, wielding both arms and magic, could cut down an unarmed mer in the arena for innocuous remarks they made at a cornerclub. Despite much talk, the inevitable victor would likely face no response except a full coin purse. If some miraculous upset happened, a magistrate was likely to intervene and declare the winner an outlaw. Over matters the Nords would likely settle with a tavern fistfight, the Dunmer would settle with ritualized murder.
The individual mer had become a disposable livestock fit only to be culled and traded by the Great Houses and the Temple. We would be largely blind to how low we had fallen, until the quakes brought by the Red Year forced us to remember the merits of unity, mercy, and honor.
The Course Ahead
Necessity has forced the Dunmer to once again become the Changed Folk. But on matters of dueling, we risk becoming becalmed, adrift far from any shore. If there were one culture in Tamriel with perfect dueling principles, I would wholeheartedly endorse copying them. Since one does not exist, the Dunmer must make what we have better. And we must change. There simply are not enough of us left to continue as we had before. I refuse to waste any more ink on this point.
Many Dunmer have rightly sought much guidance from the Ashlanders since the Red Year, as they largely preserved our Chimeri customs. However, simply recreating the Chimeri past will recreate their follies. We cannot forget that it was the Chimer who ended their own golden age.
To revive honorable dueling practices among the Dunmer – which is to say, to make dueling generally useful – what must be re-established is that the duel is an opportunity to prove one’s willingness to risk their life. This is sometimes called “gaining satisfaction.” The fundamental problem is that far too many Dunmer duels – perhaps most – have not entailed two parties facing the risk of death, but one party marching to certain death. A duel where only one party faces meaningful risk is merely a thinly veiled murder, the only type which certainly earns Mephala’s scorn. Marching to one’s execution may be construed as noble by traditionalists, but it is demanding far more than “satisfaction.” For the loser, it is demanding everything. For the winner, any satisfaction is a fiction. If satisfaction is not possible, an honorable duel is not possible. The Presumption of Arms must be left in the ashes, and instead satisfaction must be our guide.
Rededicating ourselves to Azura is well-founded, but embracing the Tong once again would depend on the form it takes. Yes, reader, the Morag Tong still exists (or least, an organization of assassins claims that name), but it has nothing like the strength and function it had in the past. It must be acknowledged the Dunmer are much more dispersed than before, and our neighbors have little tolerance for assassins. If the Tong, or some other assassins guild, is to reclaim a place of significant power in Dunmer society, they must be guardians of honor. They must be the assassins dedicated not to the deepest pockets, but to removing the rot, both weak and strong. They must be assassins not only of Mephala, but of Azura, as they once were.
To facilitate and maintain honorable practices, the Grand Council should devise triumvirates of Duelmasters, or Arenamasters where available, for Dunmeri communities composed of a member of each of the three most populous Dunmeri factions in the area. Such triumvirates should be empowered to not only recognize and nullify dishonorable duels brought before them, but arbitrate the underlying disagreement through some other negotiation or contest. Dagoth is in the details, of course, but the Dunmer must trust in Azura to bless how specifics and precedents are settled. This is the course best shielded on all sides from Oegnithr.
Regardless of whether these triumvirates come to pass, the Dunmeri must learn to be humble and realistic about their shortcomings. Boethiah’s truths do not force us to lie about our weaknesses. A mer who would march into a duel they cannot win is, in essence, espousing an obvious and foolish lie – again, the only type which earns Mephala’s scorn.
The greatest barrier to change in Dunmeri dueling does not come from warriors, who generally understand these matters all too well. It stems mainly from wise women, monks, and other powerful people clinging to orthodoxies – almost all of whom, coincidentally, are well-shielded from dueling. Their chief objection, basically, is that Boethiah has no tolerance for the weak. Their simple objection lacks merit for a simple reason: intolerance for the weak did not make us strong.
I do not seek an end to duels to the death. Some n’wahs need to die, and sparing others (say, a deposed and cranky leader) could pose too great a risk. Nor do I seek the revival of “elf poker” Altmeri dueling blades or some such nonsense. The more powerful should win. But it must be understood that individual martial prowess is only one way a Dunmer may strengthen their society. Social ties or young age should not be the only saving graces for those unable to defend themselves against the stronger who perceive an offense. A Dunmer may be relatively feeble and unpopular, but their existence may yet find merit among the Good Daedra.
The Dunmer must not take the metaphor behind Boethiah’s Proving too literally. As I said, the lessons of Boethiah on parchment can be twisted into the lessons of Sheogorath, and the powerful found reasons to do so in the past. It must be understood that Boethiah is not Molag Bal; in fact, she detests Molag Bal. She is no dull-witted force. She understands nature, beauty, and that a fruit must ripened before it can be perfectly sliced. She sees that the greatest of fighters demand others to raise them, a prize to fight for, a cook to feed them, and a winemaker to make them all the more vicious. She grants things their place, in her schemes against some greater authority. Boethiah is not the one to reward honor, but neither does she truly punish it. Mortal honor is just another feature in Boethiah’s landscape.
People, even some Dunmer, get confused and think we Dark Elves worship or should worship Boethiah in much the same way as others worship the Divines. Maybe Azura would appreciate the sentiment, but Boethiah has no care for worship. Sycophants who lay at her feet will soon lay motionless. What most Dunmer feel for Boethiah is not worship. I have no faith in Boethiah, for I need none. I know Boethiah. Boethiah is a reality that it always with me and which I deeply respect, for she brings me many truths – and thus, brings me strength. But many fail to appreciate her real nature.
As I look out the portals of my tower, I see the Wrothgarian Mountains being assaulted by the greatest blizzard it has seen in two generations. Boethiah enjoys this. There are, no doubt, many who have died or will die in the snowbanks, or in the avalanches to come. Boethiah enjoys this, too. Now, what if someone had known of this storm, and lured some to die in it, cold and afraid? What if these people – say, some preening sacks of Altmeri meat who think themselves superior – were tricked to march into unmarked mountainside graves of ice? Boethiah would love this, as would Mephala and Azura.
You see, Boethiah may revel in duels, in one person burying their blade in the chest of another, but this is not the only way to please her. Killing itself is not even necessary. What Boethiah truly relishes is the extraordinary exercise of power, which can come from the stroke of a pen as easily as it comes from the stroke of a blade. Simply gather whatever power you can to yourself, and flourish it with boldness. Wield truth like a hammer. Boethiah will be pleased.
I know many a dangerous Dunmer has won a duel I am deeming dishonorable (or at least, lacking in honor), or will find some other offense in these words. If you must demand satisfaction, you can only come to me as a friend. Consider this my contract.“Boethiah” (top) | Illustration by Beewinter55, DeviantArt
“Mephala” (middle) | Illustration courtesy of SonicPopsicles, DeviantArt
“The Great Houses – The Royal Guard of House Hlaalu” (bottom) | Photo by Isugi, DeviantArt